A full 45 days before the Lok Sabha passed the three farm laws, a group of experts commissioned by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh made a number of recommendations for agriculture that reflect some key provisions in the farm laws.
These were part of a preliminary report last August on the challenges of a post-Covid strategy to build “resilience and recovery” in the state. However, the Chief Minister, who constituted the group under the leadership of former deputy chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia in April last year, rejected these recommendations a few days after the report was submitted.
The sub-group of experts on agriculture included economist Ashok Gulati who is also a member of the committee appointed by the Supreme Court to receive feedback from groups on the laws.
In its report, under the title “Transforming Punjab’s Agriculture,” the expert panel suggested marketing reforms and opening up of agriculture marketing beyond the APMCs.
The report said: “The government of Punjab has taken steps to amend the Punjab APMC Act, but the rules and regulations still contain too many restrictive provisions in terms of high license fees, exclusion of many of the crops into which diversification is likely, uncertain period of the validity of the licenses, and also having the Mandi board as the licensing authority which involves a potential conflict of interest.”
The experts proposed that the state government should conduct a careful comparison of the provisions in Punjab with those in other states. “If Haryana and Uttar Pradesh move to a more liberal arrangement, Punjab runs the risk of losing potential investments by processors, exporters, organised retailers etc. This diversion also implies a loss of jobs and tax revenues.”
The state government should, therefore, “quickly frame the rules and notify the amendments related to levy of market fees, commission fees, licensing, etc. which make Punjab competitive with other states,” the report said.
This is in tune with the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotions and Facilitation) Act, 2020, which allows the sale of agriculture produce in open markets instead of just government mandis. Farmers have been protesting against the law arguing this could pave the way for the government’s exit and make them vulnerable to “exploitation” by private players.
The report also recommended that state laws should be changed to open up a leasing market for agriculture land so that private players can participate — a provision in The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement and Farm Services Act, 2020.
The experts criticised Punjab’s farm subsidy and urged the state to switch to Direct Benefit Transfer. Red-flagging free power for agriculture, the experts said this had led to an “unsustainable burden” on the budget and had “very damaging environmental consequences because it promotes water intensive paddy cultivation, leading to excessive use of ground water which has produced an alarming fall in the water table.”
On fertiliser and food subsidies (under PDS), the group recommended that these should be stopped and cash benefits considered. The experts also underlined the state’s failure to keep up with the times and diversify crops.
After the report, the CM said the farm power subsidy would continue. “As long as I am here, free power to tubewells will continue,” he had said.
Gulati could not be contacted.
Punjab Agricultural University Vice Chancellor Dr B S Dhillon, who was part of the sub-group, said there was a general consensus that the assumption of improvement in market efficiency by opening up agriculture markets beyond APMCs may be misplaced, as in Bihar. “The farmers made no economic gains where the APMC markets were absent and food grains were sold through private traders. The farmers were unable to sell at MSP,” he said.
Soon after The Indian Express contacted the Chief Minister’s office, a spokesperson tweeted on his behalf: “By rejecting Montek Committee’s preliminary recommendations on farming sector, I’d made my and my govt’s stand clear. Anything that is not in farmers’ interest or adds to their burden will not be implemented in Punjab till I’m there.”
In another tweet, he said: “Montek Committee is an expert group whose task is to make recommendations. But it’s my government’s job to accept or reject them. I know the ground reality and I know what’s good for my farmers. I’ll not let their interests be compromised at any cost.”